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Bills 38, Steelers 3: five things we learned in Week 5

No apologies made for the baseball metaphors; Bills turn attention to Chiefs

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills promptly disposed of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 5, building up a 31-3 halftime lead en route to a 38-3 victory that served as a proper tune-up game for their important Week 6 road matchup with the Kansas City Chiefs. Here are five things we learned from the Bills’ win that gave them their fourth consecutive 4-1 start to a season:

Buffalo still hasn’t lost its fastball

As Buffalo’s wide receiver room has turned over personnel over the last four years, a common refrain from general manager Brandon Beane has been that the Bills do not want to “lose our fastball” as those changes are made.

Clearly, they have retained their velocity. QuarterbackJosh Allen averaged 21.2 yards per completion yesterday, and the Bills had four touchdown drives that lasted three plays or less. They had a 31-3 lead at halftime that genuinely could have been larger, and won by five scores.

Where the Bills chose to surround Allen with veteran receivers early in his development arc, this year it’s a couple of mid-round picks ensuring the offense retains its fastball. Wide receiver Gabe Davis, fresh off of an ankle sprain that hampered him each of the last two weeks, averaged 57 yards per reception (three catches, 171 yards) and made the biggest plays in the win. Rookie wide receiver Khalil Shakir, buried deep on the depth chart at the outset of the season and elevated due to injuries, had 75 receiving yards and a touchdown on just three receptions, as well.

Davis was a fourth-round pick in 2020; Shakir, a fifth-round pick in 2022. Allen’s ascent to an elite passer now allows the Bills to retain its fastball with quality mid-round picks—and even with wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie likely to return from his concussion next week, it’s hard to imagine Shakir not factoring into the team’s passing attack going forward.

Still developing the off-speed pitch

For the fourth time in five games this season, Allen paced the Bills in rushing yardage, amassing 42 yards on five totes. (He was at least matched at the top of the rushing output list by Devin Singletary, who gained 42 yards on his six carries.) The team was so efficient through the air that the rushing attack was once again an afterthought—to the point that the Bills and Steelers set a record for fewest combined rushing attempts in a game in Bills franchise history.

Buffalo will need a reliable off-speed pitch at some point—probably as soon as next week’s pivotal conference matchup with Kansas City—but it was not this day.

Defensive success against rookie QBs continues

A long-running theme for Buffalo’s defense under head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assitant head coach Leslie Frazier is their success against rookie quarterbacks, a trend the team highlighted in the run-up to the Steelers game.

The success continues. Rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett fared much better than many of the other rookies the Bills have previously faced—in completing 34-of-52 passes for 327 yards, Pickett put up the second-most completions (behind quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s 35 in Week 17 of 2020) and yards (behind Tagovailoa’s 361 from the same contest) by a rookie passer against a McDermott/Frazier-era defense. He edged out quarterback Justin Herbert (31-of-52, 316 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT in 2020) in both categories. His 74.8 passer rating skews above average in these dozen games, as well.

That said—and certainly with game script stacked against him, in addition to a quality defense—Pickett’s offense was only able to muster three points in a blowout loss. Buffalo achieved its elementary objective of shutting down Pittsburgh’s rushing attack (running back Najee Harris carried 11 times for 20 yards) and putting the game in Pickett’s hands, and the results mostly speak for themselves.

Now, in 12 games against rookie quarterbacks, the McDermott/Frazier defense has limited those passers to a 61.5 passer rating with seven touchdowns allowed and 18 interceptions. The Bills have also collected 32 sacks in those 12 games.

A (mostly) injury-free day

Edge rusher Von Miller gave Bills fans a brief scare in the first half by developing a cramp that left him flat on his back on the Highmark Stadium turf for a couple of minutes; he promptly returned to action and later recorded a sack.

The news was not as good for defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, who returned from a hamstring injury suffered in Week 2 and appeared to re-aggravate the injury after 19 snaps. He did return in the second half to try to continue to play, but lasted only two plays before tapping himself out again. One of Buffalo’s preeminent interior pass rushers, Phillips’s status should be closely monitored heading into next week.

Given how the injury situation had gone in previous weeks for the Bills, however, the short injury report coming out of the game can’t be viewed as anything but great news—particularly with the bye week on the horizon.

Bills-Chiefs looms

The Bills said all of the right things about their focus on Pittsburgh, rather than Kansas City, leading up to Sunday. Bills Mafia were under no such obligation, and the Bills themselves could be forgiven for looking ahead a week, particularly given the way yesterday’s game went. The Bills-Chiefs matchup—happening at Arrowhead Stadium for the fourth consecutive time—is worth every bit of hype it will receive this week.

That said, while the matchup could prove to be important in determining the AFC playoff seeding, there’s every chance it won’t. Buffalo beat Kansas City at Arrowhead in Week 5 a year ago, moving to 4-1 and sending the Chiefs to 2-3. They still ended up playing at Arrowhead in the divisional round of the playoffs.

This year’s Bills-Chiefs regular-season tilt won’t settle anything definitively, but it’s still probably going to be a ton of fun—and a proper early season measuring stick between the two AFC powerhouses who appear on a playoff collision course once more.